Chicago, IL, USA


Coaching First-Generation to College Students: Don't even begin to underestimate them.

October 26, 2019


*details of student stories changed to protect student anonymity.


It was a familiar scene. The student came in, heavily focused on his resume. He was nervous. I could see through the carefully crafted answers and the caution in his voice. He was trying to demonstrate that he had it all together. It was like a castle built of tissue paper. Just a careful tap on the door, and the real story came into clarity. 


After building some initial rapport, I decided to cut right to the heart of the issue. 


“I’m hearing you say you’re concerned about finding a job. And it seems like all of that tension is being directed toward getting this resume absolutely perfect. We can work on your resume all day long. But getting a job is much more than that.”


I can see him responding to my words, almost with relief. 


I continue, “Tell me if what I’m intuiting is accurate. I just wonder if deep down there’s a small part of you that believes you may not belong here, and then an even bigger part of you that is really afraid to fail.”


His reaction was all the confirmation I needed. We went onto dig into the root of what was blocking him from being able to take action toward his career search. 


How did I know all of this was true? Because I used to be him. 


“The National Center for Education Statistics data shows that after 3 years of enrollment, 33% of first generation to college students leave college without a degree compared to 14% of students who have parents with degrees (Cataldi, Bennett & Chen, 2018).


First Generation to college students are more likely to use online services from their Career Center, even though they themselves deem some of those services as less effective than in person (NACE, 2016) 


Why? One could guess a number of reasons for this such as personal obligations or work commitments.  But from my own lived experience I think another reason is also plausible: emotional safety. 


I still remember all the unfamiliar words that would hit like a rip tide during my first few weeks of college. 


"Registrar. Bursar. Provost. Dean. Drop date. W. Industry. Work Study. Financial Aid. Plus Loans. Perkins Loans. Department Chair. Memorandum of Agreement."


These were all words that meant nothing to me when I arrived at college. And I remember trying to not let others know when something made me feel like a fish out of water. I thought that the more I flew under the radar, The better my chances were of making it through college without making a scene. 


What are your summer plans, Ashley?” 

“Oh, probably just working a summer job back home.” 


This answer was in contrast to the answers of my peers which included finding internships, working at camps, and gaining once in a life-time experiences that were sure to build their skills and connections. 


During my undergraduate degree I came to understand that there was an invisible staircase; a series of steps to be prepared for life and career that so many of my peers instinctively knew how to navigate - or for that matter, even knew these invisible steps existed.  


The Board of Education also found that first generation to college students who are retained in college are statistically no different than their peers in terms of initial career outcomes (Cataldi, Bennett & Chen, 2018). Though there is conflicting research about this in terms of long-term outcomes it does seem to suggest that retention is at least one key factor in a student who is first generation to college being able to obtain the same career outcomes as their peers. 


Knowing all of this, how then do we as career and higher education professionals ensure we are supporting first generation to college students in ways that speak to their specific needs?


Here are 4 practices I’ve incorporated into my coaching approach when working with any student, but in particular first generation to college students. 


  1. Read Between the Lines. Often students have built the skill of seeming like everything is together and just fine even when it is not. The one thing they know is that their main job is not to mess up this opportunity, both for their own sake, and also for the sake of their community, family and loved ones. Knowing this, ask genuine and thoughtful questions. Even if they seem to suggest that everything is fine, go one step further to make sure they know you are available to listen. This does not mean that you cross their own personal or emotional boundaries but it does mean that you take a little extra effort to ensure they know you are willing and ready to listen. Examples: “So I see that you have your resume complete and you have attended all career fairs. Great job. That takes a lot of effort! How are you managing all of that with your classes and other parts of life? Are there any other areas of your career journey that perhaps you have questions on but are unsure how to ask? Is there anything that secretly makes you sort of nervous as you get closer to finding your internship/and or job?

  2. Coach rather than shame. Don’t barrage them for not engaging the career office sooner if they happen to come in at the end of their student tenure. They may already be concerned that this career mountain is too challenging to scale. So the last thing you want to do is use intimidation techniques. (“if you don’t do this, then you won’t get picked by top firms.”) Be honest, but helpful. Rather than giving students a long laundry list and overwhelming them, focus on what the student is doing right and build upon that. Some students might thrive with a long list, but often this is useful after they have a sense of career self-efficacy. Give them actionable steps and celebrate success. Example: “Great job finishing your resume. Now let’s build on that foundation. Here is our alumni database. Let’s say for next time you find just 3 people you think would be interesting to reach out to, and draft an email to reach out. Here are some examples of how to reach out.”

  3. In the same vein, don’t even begin to underestimate them. The last thing a first generation college student wants is feeling labeled or pity. That diminishes their identity to only one component. Often first generation to college students have developed incredible strengths as a result of their story. This is an asset not a deficit. Help them incorporate and translate these great strengths into their professional brand. Example: “Great, rather than saying you’re hard working, let’s think about what that actually means. What about, ‘Focused toward excellence, able to channel resilience toward continuous process improvement and finding solutions.’”

  4. Focus more on relationship building, networking and experience. It is possible that their primary goal for years in life was to get to college, navigate college, and graduate college. It is important then to highlight the many other nuances to career success such as building a network of relationships, gaining internship experience early on, and identifying career pathways that make sense for their interest and strengths. Encourage networking and etiquette dinners, and be detailed about the best ways to follow up once someone has made a connection. Once they see this as a critical component to their success, they will have no problem going after it with motivation and drive. So even though you have applied to 10 positions, it’s easy to hit the apply button, but harder to reach out to an alum and share about your strengths, interests and ask for their career advice. Let’s identify 1-2 people with whom you can connect. 


In conclusion, we all want to be seen as whole, in light of the various parts of our identities; not diminished down to one part of our story. To experience being seen through only one lens is demoralizing and translates to an inaccurate perception of our abilities. As coaches and student development professionals it is all the more important that we develop an equity mindset. By acknowledging the stories, systems and communities that have shaped each of us, we are better prepared to encourage our students to leverage their stories as an asset toward success. 


**If you would enjoy adding an artistic element to this article for further reflection, I recommend listening to Breathe, by Lin Manuel Miranda from In the Heights. In this song, a young woman expresses her lifelong experience of striving and climbing for something more, navigating community identities, and coping with both success and failure. 



National Association OF Colleges and Employers, (2016). Use of the Career Center by First Generation College Students. Retrieved from: 


Cataldi, E. F., Bennett, C. T., & Chen, X. (2018). First-Generation Students: College Access, Persistence, and Postbachelor's Outcomes. Stats in Brief. NCES 2018-421. National Center for Education Statistics. 


Other Resources: 




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